Places of Power: Egypt’s Al-Masa Hotel, a witness to a defeated revolution

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Secret Places of Power

By Abir Sorour
Posted on Monday, 5 September 2022 16:30, updated on Wednesday, 7 September 2022 12:16

From being a destination for weddings to a place where the country’s foreign and local policies are engineered, Al-Masa Hotel is seen as a military shrine embedded in the civilian life of contemporary Egypt.

This is part 6 of a 7-part series

Nasr City, a suburban neighbourhood in Cairo, can easily be the busiest district in the city, due to a number of shopping malls, residential areas, bureaucratic complexes, and civilian military buildings. Right next to a lingerie store you might see a military unit and opposite a shopping mall with a big banner advertising the most recent Marvel film, there might be a military intelligence affiliated facility with heavily guarded soldiers.

However, there’s one street that always remains void of traffic: Dr Abd El-Aziz El-Shennawy Street, home to Egypt’s current place of power: Al-Masa Hotel.

Nasr City symbolises the infusion of the Egyptian military in civilian and economic life, which started in 1952 and is now reaching a peak in 2022. The military in Egypt owns film production, construction, baby formula, pasta and canned food companies, as well as hospitality businesses and hotels, weddings and funeral houses, and social clubs.

Al-Masa, which means ‘the gem’ in Arabic, is owned and run by the military. A portion of the workers might be military conscripts, while others are professionals.

The hotel was established in 2006 and was a competitor to private hotels as middle and upper-class families preferred to host their weddings there due to affordable prices and better service.

From 2006 to 2011, Al-Masa remained away from the spotlight of political events. The show was going on in Sharm El-Sheikh in South Siani, the city which was the political stronghold of the regime of Mohamed Hosni Mubarak. In February 2011, Mubarak headed to Sharm El-Sheikh along with his family and close circles, escaping the boiling pot of Cairo and millions of angry protesters; but in Nasr City, a new chapter in Egypt’s political history was being written.

2011-2012: Finding the perfect match for new Egypt

After the ousting of Mubarak on 11 February 2011, the power went to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), an entity that began to approach the youth and secular groups to gain their trust, as they anticipated the next step to end the protests and the political turmoil that had engulfed the country.

SCAF found a perfect ally in the Islamists, as they shared conservative concepts in keeping the status quo…

In February 2011, the head of the military intelligence department was Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, while the head of the Armed Forces Management and Administration was General Mahmoud Hegazy. Together they met a group of young people from leftist and liberal backgrounds inside Al-Masa Hotel, including activists Asmaa Mahfouz, Wael Ghoniem, and Ahmed Maher.

It was a time when the secular power thought of the military as a “protector of the revolution” before the military began to crack down in a bid to restore order.

The majority of the activists who attended the meetings at the time are now either banned from entering or exiting Egypt or have served prison sentences.

According to a military source, the meeting was not a success as the aspirations of the “revolutionary youth” were too progressive to their taste. “It was after that meeting that the military began to seek another player: the political Islam groups [the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists].”

…the MB was the best organised option to counter the leftist and liberal powers in the public spheres, universities, and syndicates.

“SCAF found a perfect ally in the Islamists, as they shared conservative concepts in keeping the status quo when it comes to several local policies, and most importantly the capitalistic-leaning economic nature of the country,” the military source tells The Africa Report. 

A source close to Muslim Brotherhood (MB) exile circle in Turkey tells The Africa Report that “the MB was the best-organised option to counter the leftist and liberal powers in the public spheres, universities, and syndicates”, confirming that the country’s Islamist movement got a carte blanche to run for parliament, establish new parties, and operate without fear after a series of secret meetings in Al-Masa with the military from March 2011 to November 2011.

Al-Masa, the source added, was the meeting point for then defence minister and head of SCAF Mohamed Hassanein Tantawi, along with other known persons from the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Mohamed Morsi, Mohamed Badie – the supreme guide of the group – and Khairat Al-Shater, arguably the political and business mastermind of the group.

“At the time, the hotel was a stronghold for the military intelligence that was run by Sisi who was later chosen, stupidly, by the MB to become the defence minister in the new MB-controlled government,” the source says.

2013-2017: All the President’s hotel staff

The hotel was witness to the “honeymoon period” between the military and the MB from February 2011 to January 2013, but also witnessed the violent divorce among the country’s political rivals.

Sisi toppled President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government through a military coup d’état in July 2013 – often referred to as the July revolution – which preceded massive protests nationwide calling for the ousting of the Islamist president. However, before he was deposed, Al-Masa witnessed some of the behind-the-scenes preparation.

One source close to the foreign ministry says that from January 2012 to May 2013, Sisi held several meetings with high-level American diplomats from the US embassy, without the acknowledgement of the Egyptian president and his staff.

Al-Masa also was one of the birthplaces of the Tamarod petition that was meant to signal a vote of no-confidence in the president and call for early presidential elections. The petition was spearheaded by several secular activists but was heavily encouraged and facilitated by state institutions.  Military officials met with the ‘Tamarod youth’ in order to discuss strategy and rhetoric, the military source adds.

The hotel was full of military and police personnel that day. There was even talk of establishing a field hospital in the hotel…

The divorce between the military and the Islamists ended in the bloody dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square that killed over 1000 people in August 2013.

On 14 August 2013, Al-Masa’s elaborate entrance gate was only a 15-minute walk to the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square sit-in, where angry supporters of the now-ousted Mohamed Morsi were protesting. Most of Nasr City was affected by the sit-in and hotel occupancy was at a low, as protesters started to build walls in anticipation of a dispersal.

Inside Al-Masa, a situation room was established to monitor the dispersal and to report directly to the presidency and the ministry of defence, as well as a media room to edit and distribute videos to publish to local and international media.

“The hotel was full of military and police personnel that day. There was even talk of establishing a field hospital in the hotel should the dispersal take a wrong turn [on the side of the state],” the security source says.

After Sisi won the elections, Al-Masa remained a press conference and meeting hall for his new government to re-establish ties with countries that showed concern about the military takeover in 2013.

Unofficial meetings between French and Egyptian diplomats and business persons took place in the hotel in order to restore the RAFAL and Mistral deals, for example. In Al-Masa, Sisi also met with labour unions, Sinai Tribes, football players, military leaders, journalists, politicians, religious clerics, judges, state-sponsored youth groups, business persons, and foreign diplomats.

2018-2022: The living room of the GIS

Three sources, military and diplomatic, confirmed to The Africa Report that Al-Masa was the residential place for Sisi for months ahead of the ousting of Morsi, and months afterwards. Al-Masa had become the de facto residential place for Sisi, confirms three sources (military and diplomatic) to The Africa Report. 

Even before he decided to take off his military fatigues, he had already garnered much local support. Before being elected as president, Sisi did very little, if any campaigning, apart from three interviews, two of which were held in Al-Masa.

It was within the walls of Al-Masa that his new campaign later turned into a political party called ‘Nation’s Future’. Al-Masa’s conference rooms and receptions had been the headquarters of the campaign.

Being the big boss’s place of residence for a month, the hotel is equipped with surveillance devices and intelligence agents.

The dynamics of the hotel changed starting in 2018 with the appointment of Sisi’s chief of staff, General Abbas Kamel as the head of General Intelligence Services (GIS) – arguably the country’s most powerful institution.

“Being the big boss’ place of residence for a month, the hotel is equipped with surveillance devices and intelligence agents. In 2018, it started to be the living room for the GIS,” a military source says.

Kamel’s activities centred around the lobbies and rooms of Al-Masa, the first time an intelligence boss began to operate outside the famous GIS headquarters in Hadayek Al-Qubba neighbourhood, which was established in the 1950s by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Kamel continues to have an office in the hotel, to host leaders and officials from Sudan, Libya, and Palestine (Gaza and the West Bank): the three files that the GIS is heavily invested in.

The majority of the ceasefire agreements between Gaza and Israel passed by Al-Masa get sealed in Al-Masa hallways.

“The majority of the ceasefire agreements between Gaza and Israel passed by Al-Masa get sealed in Al-Masa hallways,” a diplomatic source says. He shares a joke that “the hotel service workers [GIS agents] in Al-Masa knew about the Sudan coup before the Egyptian Ambassador in Khartoum.”

Sisi also used the hotel to launch his second campaign to run for a second term in 2018, during a three-day conference titled Hekyat Watan (Story of a Nation), where he outlined his administration’s most prominent achievements and challenges.

Detention centre

Al-Masa Hotel also acted as a detention centre for political opponents or suspects of corruption or rivalries. In May 2018, reports circulated that one of his closest military leaders, Field Marshal Osama Askar,was put under house arrest in the hotel for months, along with his wife, after accusations arose that he had stolen LE500m ($26,000) from the army’s budget. One security source and one diplomatic source confirmed the incident.

Askar eventually returned the embezzled money and is currently chief of staff of the Armed Forces. In 2018, the hotel was used again as a detention centre when former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq was detained for some days in one of the rooms, interrogated and forced to withdraw his candidacy for the presidential elections.

After negotiations, Shafiq accepted a deal, abandoned any political aspirations and now lives a quiet life, a military source tells The Africa Report.

The new Al-Masa

Al-Masa is a brand, championed and designed by the Egyptian military. Since 2017, two branches of the hotel have been built in the country’s new megacities: The New Administrative Capital and the New Alamin.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

Places of Power: South Africa’s Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel

There is some irony in Winne Madikizela-Mandela choosing a hotel that is the namesake of her former husband to celebrate her 80th birthday in 2016. Their separation 24 years prior wasn't a friendly one, but by then, he had been dead for three years and this had been shifted to the background.

Places of Power: Ethiopia’s historic Hilton & luxurious Sheraton

At the headquarters of the African Union, there's a host of secret deals and meetings that take place behind the famed walls of the Hilton and the Sheraton: the two iconic hotels in the capital.

Places of Power: Senegal, where all roads lead to Touba

If presidential palaces are symbols of the power of heads of state, other places and buildings still play a crucial role. Today we look at Senegal's Touba, the cradle of Mouridism, which has long had a complex relationship with the political sphere.

Places of Power: Côte d’Ivoire’s mysterious temple of the Freemasons

If presidential palaces are symbols of the power of heads of state, other places and buildings still play a crucial role... Like this discreet villa in Abidjan, which houses the headquarters of the Grand Lodge of Côte d'Ivoire.

Places of Power: DRC’s Fleuve Congo hotel, ‘the cream of the crop’

If presidential palaces are symbols of the power of heads of state, other places and buildings still play a crucial role. This is the case of the Fleuve Congo, whose 22 floors and old-fashioned charm dominate the heart of Kinshasa.

Places of Power: Cameroon’s Mount Fébé, the other hill of power

If presidential palaces are symbols of the power of heads of state, other places and buildings still play a crucial role. Today we look at the Mont Fébé Hotel in Yaoundé, whose star has certainly faded since the appearance of the Hilton, but where the elite continue to flock.